Amid the canapes and delicate phyllo fingers that hosts feel obligated to conjure during the holidays, a cheese platter might seem like a cop-out. After all, you didn't make it.
A well-constructed cheese board, though, is a sure way to please your guests and show off your food savvy.
Start by not getting carried away. Choose cheeses that offer contrasting tastes, textures and colors. For instance, try a soft goat cheese, a hard sheep's milk cheese, a semisoft washed-rind cheese and a creamy blue.
Limit the platter to a maximum of six cheeses (three or four is optimal). Any more than that, cheese gurus say, confuses the palate and makes matching a wine difficult.
"You want some soft things, some hard things, maybe a blue, maybe a stinky, and at least two milk types, between cow, goat and sheep," says Liz Thorpe, the vice president of Murray's Cheese and author of The Cheese Chronicles .
Her knockout combinations would match a hard, saltier cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or a nutty, well-aged Gouda, with a "bloomy rind" -- those soft, melting tallegios and Camemberts -- and one slightly less accessible cheese, for instance, a classic English Stilton. For good measure, you could throw in a Spanish manchego, made of sheep's milk, or one of its goat-milk cousins, such as the Drunken Goat, a hard, mild, wine-washed cheese.
Fiona Beckett, the author of the cheese guide and cookbook Cheese Course , also recommends playing with different themes. Try creating an entire cheese board using cheeses from a particular country, or showcasing different styles of one type of cheese; for instance, creating a platter of blues such as Gorgonzola Dolce, Shropshire Blue and Roquefort.
Complement the cheese with two or three high-quality nibbles. Dried cherries brighten up those bloomy rinds, Ms. Thorpe says, and marcona (Spanish) almonds highlight the butterscotch tones in aged Gouda.
Sheep cheeses go nicely with quince paste, and the sugar in dried figs bounces off the blues. Stick with mildly flavored items; no fiery chorizo or heavily smoked fish. Instead try gently smoked salmon, sweet sopressata, pickled or grilled vegetables, olives, cornichons, apples and pears. Keep your bread or crackers simple.
Show off all your good work by picking the right wine. Steer clear of the big reds, which can overwhelm the cheese, says Marnie Old, author of Wine Secrets . Reach instead for white wines that are dry, un-oaked and medium-bodied -- sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, Spanish albarino, Austrian gruner veltliner or dry, bracing Australian riesling.
The wines come with one caveat: Don't put anything sugary, such as honey or compote, onto your platter, If the wines complement the salt in the cheese, they will rebel against sugar.